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Nikolaj Arcel • Director

“I am mostly proud that we didn't fail”


- The Danish director talks about leaving the present for an 18th-century love and political drama.

Nikolaj Arcel • Director

His first selection for the Berlin International Film Festival, Danish director Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair [+see also:
film review
interview: Mikkel Boe Følsgaard
interview: Nikolaj Arcel
film profile
received two Silver Bears for Best Original Screenplay (Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg) and Best Actor (Mikkel Boe Følgsgaard).

Cineuropa: You usually deal with contemporary subjects and ordinary people. Why go back to a 1770 court love affair?
Nikolaj Arcel: I have known the story since I was very young, and it has always fascinated me. The idea came by accident, as they do - on a walk in the King's Garden of Copenhagen, and my sister started talking about it. First I made a joke of it, but during the evening it had sunk in - it became a challenge.

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At least ten directors have tried to set it up, some have given up from budget reasons, others because they could not deliver the story - the scripts have been problematic. I think we cracked the code when we discovered that Queen Caroline Mathilda was a bright and intelligent woman who could be a natural part of the political story.

Were you intrigued by the characters or the story?
I found especially the characters exciting, and their individual pursuit of happiness which they would only find together. There are heroes and villains in the story, but neither Struensee nor the Queen deserved their fates - he decapitated, she exiled. We can only guess about Struensee's charisma and personality, but most people agree that his way to power was through his close friendship with King Christian VII - he became almost a father figure to the King who trusted him blindly. He was eventually overthrown, because he was an idealistic reformer who wanted to change the whole world at once - too much both for the nobility and the people.

Was it difficult to cast the film?
I am a big fan of Mads Mikkelsen, so he was my first choice for Struensee, and luckily he accepted; the Queen was difficult, we spread the search to Sweden, and there was Alicia Vikander, radiant like the sun, and I knew I had found her (since the real Queen was English, she also spoke Danish with an accent). Mikkel (Boe Følgsgaard) for the King was a gamble, a student actor who had never made films before, but I felt he was talented and a good person it would be fun to work with.

Why did you choose to shoot in the Czech Republic and Germany?
Prague and the rest of the Czech Republic simply offered the best locations, both for 18th century Copenhagen exteriors and the old castles which had not been restored. Unfortunately most of these castles have been painted yellow or pink, and we needed the old Christiansborg in sandstone, which we found in Dresden.

The real problem, however, was the lighting of the night scenes - I think we used Prague's total supply of candles during the seven weeks we worked there: we had to change them all the time. There are almost 200 digital shots in the film, five of Christiansborg which we created, otherwise mostly for removing modern stuff, or change the colour of the skies.

Your break-through film?
I do not know whether I can call A Royal Affair a breakthrough - probably it is a bit late. I am proud of all my films, but if people just knew how hard it is to stage such a production on a Danish budget, with costumes, wigs, horses, old language, love, politics, executions … I am mostly proud that we didn't fail. I will never insist that my films are perfect, but I think I have delivered a great and difficult story in a gratifying way.

Difficult to do better next time?
Certainly it will be. I am currently considering what to do next as a director; in the meantime I am writing the screenplays for Zentropa three upcoming films from Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen's thrillers about deputy detective superintendent Carl Mørck and his Department Q for cases of special focus.

You also penned the first Millennium [+see also:
film review
interview: Niels Arden Oplev
interview: Søren Stærmose
film profile
film and has acted as script consultant for colleagues, as Lars von Trier, who worked with you on A Royal Affair. Learned anything from him?

I have learned a lot from Lars, especially his totally uncompromising attitude. He is a very clever story-teller and helped us a lot during the editing. But mostly I have learned that nobody can do what he does - and they shouldn't even try.

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